Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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October 11, 2002

US Looks to Military Action Against Iraq in Early 2003; Saddam’s Viable Options Diminishing

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS, with input from other sources. Momentum for the proposed US-led strategic moves against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein have intensified, not only with a US House of Representatives authorization — in a 296 to 133 vote on October 10, 2002 — for the US to use military force against the Iraqi leader, but also in the development of the international coalition. It was now expected that detailed military preparations would begin to take shape, even with the continued uncertainty, at least until the November 3, 2002, Turkish elections, as to the extent of utilization which the US and UK could expect from Turkish bases in any attack against Iraq.

Logical timeframe for any major military operations, then, would logically be between late December 2002 and May 2003, although it can be expected that Pres. Saddam would attempt to control the agenda, possibly, once again, by forcing the US to act prematurely. This could occur through continued Iraqi escalation against Israel. However, the growing momentum of international governmental support for the US — despite media rhetoric — means that Pres. Saddam’s viable options were being significantly limited. 

The threat of internal military rebellion against the Ba’athist leadership in Iraq has meant that Pres. Saddam has moved the bulk of the Army, including key Republican Guard units, out of Baghdad, mostly to the extreme West of the country, near the Jordanian and Syrian borders, with the al-Quds [Jerusalem] brigades, ready for a rapid military move against Israel (but, more importantly, to ensure that they could not retaliate against Saddam).

It was also understood that US intelligence sources agree with GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily estimates that place a significant portion of Iraq’s strategic weapons research, stockpiling and possibly ballistic missile launch capabilities aboard the extensive barge network on the Tigris-Euphrates river systems.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, October 2, 2002: Iraq Believed Using Riverine Barges, Vessels, for WMD Storage, Development and Possible Launch.]

France has moved significantly closer toward open support for the US, following the sabotage attack on a French-owned supertanker off the Yemeni coast. The US Senate was expected to vote on October 11, 2002, to also support military action against Iraq.

The moves significantly strengthen the hand of US Pres. George W. Bush, who can now face the November 2002 Congressional elections with equanimity.

It was now possible that Pres. Saddam’s options, in terms of breaking up the international coalition and avoiding what the US has termed “regime change” in Iraq, could be to completely allow the United Nations (UN) to inspect without constraint and remove any so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This could satisfy many members of the international community, and lead to a loss of momentum for war against Iraq and an almost-certain “regime change”. Saddam could then preserve his strategic weapons options in Libya (as noted in the October 2, 2002, reported cited above), assuming the Libyan Government of Col. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi does not itself collapse, as seems likely.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was on October 10, 2002, in Russia, where he was trying to garner support for a tougher UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. Russia had thus far resisted US and UK calls for a new resolution which would include the threat of force against Iraq.

US investigators who visited the damaged French supertanker MV Limburg off Yemen found fragments of a small boat on deck and residue that tested positive for TNT. 

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, October 8, 2002: French Tanker Attack Appears to Reflect Poor Intelligence, Capability Among al-Qaida Supporters.]

Members of the ship’s crew saw a small boat speeding toward the Limburg just before an explosion rocked the supertanker on October 6, 2002, blowing a hole in its hull at the waterline. US investigators “found pieces and parts of a small marine vessel on deck”.

The French Foreign Ministry said initial results of the investigation into the current incident “appear to lead to the conclusion that the October 6 blast on the French oil tanker Limburg was due to an attack”.

As well, an Islamic Yemeni group claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed one crew member and injured 12 others. The Aden-Abyan Islamic Army said in a statement sent to the French news agency AFP in Dubai that the target was actually a US Navy frigate, but that the mistake made no difference “because the unbelievers’ nation is one”. It also said that the Limburg was “going to supply the (US) Fifth Fleet for striking the brothers in Iraq”, which was erroneous but appeared to serve as a face-saving device.

The Army of Aden-Abyan, which sometimes refers to itself as the Army of Mohammed, first came to public attention in 1997 when it became involved in the kidnapping and murder of Westerners in the Yemen Republic. The group has been identified also as the “Aden-Abyan Islamic Army” [Institute for Counter-Terrorism; Israel], and the “Islamic Army of Aden” [US State Dept., 1998]. Known links to the Afghan-based Osama bin Laden network, particularly via UK-based bin Laden-associated individuals and groups. [Osama bin Laden, although known as a former Saudi citizen, is of a family of Yemeni origin, and from the Hadramaut region of what was formerly South Yemen: the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), before it was merged with the Yemen Arab Republic.] The organization was believed responsible for the October 12, 2000, suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole (DDG 67), a United States Navy Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, during refueling operations in Aden Harbor, in southern Yemen. Seven sailors were initially confirmed dead, with 10 missing, and many more injured. The attack was carried out using a semi-rigid inflatable believed to have belonged to the Aden port authority, and while the Cole was at mid-harbor station taking fuel from a fixed installation.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, broke a long silence with an audio tape broadcast by the Qatar-based, Arabic satellite television channel al-Jazeera which warned of attacks against France and Germany. US officials said that they believed the tape was authentic and that it could have been recorded by Zawahiri some time after early August 2002. Significantly, although there had been questions as to the possibility that Osama bin Laden was alive, there has been so such questioning about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s position. He was reported, fairly authoritatively, to have been in Iran early in 2002, although it was possible that he had moved back through Afghanistan since that time, possibly to the Pakistani autonomous tribal areas, although speculation as to that movement largely originated from Indian sources, and was believed to have been speculative, based on Indian Government desires to place responsibility for ongoing Islamist activities on Pakistan.

A week earlier, al-Jazeera had broadcast another audio taped warning by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden threatening attacks on vital economic targets. US officials also believed that the tape was authentic but do not know how old it was. 

The US Navy in September 2002 warned of unconfirmed reports that al-Qaida was preparing attacks on shipping in the Gulf and off the Horn of Africa.